The British cover of Vogue magazine recently split opinion, provoking both praise and criticism. The March issue features Grammy-winning recording artist Rihanna striking a dominant pose – chin raised, shoulders back. Unsmiling, the diva is photographed leading by hand Asap Rocky, a prominent US rapper, along a beach, with Asap holding the couple's infant son in a nurturing posture, trailing behind. Most of the criticism directed at the image talks about the emasculation of Asap and the idea of an assault on manliness.
The critics could easily be dismissed as reading too much into the image. It is a fashion magazine; it's not that deep. However, this particular outcry is not an isolated incident. It is another episode, albeit a minor one, in an ongoing debate about traditional masculinity and perceived attempts to reshape it.
For example, in 2019, a YouTube ad for Gillette men's razors provoked outrage when it clumsily attempted to co-opt the #MeToo sentiment to help sell its products. Aiming to appeal to millennials by targeting "toxic masculinity", the ad portrayed men behaving badly and, in a play on the brand's slogan, rhetorically asked: "Is this the best a man can get? Is it?"
The backlash was instant. Many complainants felt that the ad went too far, lampooning and stereotyping males as nothing but brutes, bullies or sexual predators. Others contested that some activities portrayed in the ad – for instance, young boys play-fighting – were not indisputably toxic. Other critics of the ad were equally outraged by what they saw as a blatant case of "woke-washing": the opportunistic exploitation of social issues for commercial gain.
An article in Forbes magazine attempted to quantify the Gillette backlash. The numbers were big. The ad received over a quarter of a million dislikes (thumbs down) on YouTube with a negative-to-positive comment ratio of around 10 to 1.
The perceived media assault on manliness has also fuelled the rise of the "Manosphere", an online space where bloggers, podcasters and social media personalities promote ideas concerning men's rights, masculinity and what it means to be a man. The follower count and popularity of divisive influencers such as Andrew Tate are testimony to the growing numbers of young men and women open to such messages. Unfortunately, while many notions being pushed in the manosphere are harmless, perhaps even helpful, others are antisocial and misogynistic.
Beyond the media, however, the assault on traditional masculinity is also perceived as coming from professional quarters. For instance, the American Psychological Association (APA) recently published guidance for therapists working with boys and men. This influential document cautions that: "extreme forms of certain traditional masculine traits are linked to aggression, misogyny, and negative health outcomes".
The traits described as "traditionally masculine" include emotional stoicism (being calm and collected), competitiveness, self-reliance, dominance and aggression. The guidance further suggests that "conforming to traditional masculinity has been shown to limit males' psychological development and negatively influence mental and physical health".
Many psychologists have openly criticised the APA's guidance. Writing in Psychology Today, Rob Whitley, associate professor at McGill University, described the guidance as the "pathologisation of traditional masculinity". The controversial Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, refers to it as "an all-out assault on… men". This contentious debate will rage on: what exactly is healthy masculinity?
Unfortunately, much of the focus has, to date, been negative. For example, most discussions on the topic get wrapped up in ill-defined deficit concepts such as "toxic masculinity". Which traits are toxic, and who gets to decide? Reactive attempts to detoxify masculinity run the risk of throwing the nutrients out with the toxins. Furthermore, masculinity overlaps with other elements of identity, such as culture, ethnicity and religion. Failing to consider these intersections results in a homogenised (monocultural) view of masculinity, a distorted and misleading oversimplification.
It makes more sense to speak about varieties of masculinity, taking a broad, constructive, and positive approach toward understanding manliness. Similarly, rather than toxic masculinity, we might talk about healthy masculinity, prosocial masculinity and compassionate masculinity. Opting to identify positive masculine traits that benefit the holder, his family and the wider community.
Notions of masculinity are, to a large extent, culturally transmitted. Role models, the people we hold up as heroes, exemplars and paragons, shape our ideals and aspirations. There is no shortage of such positive male role models, historical and living. Celebrating such people, their lives and work, is integral to preserving and promoting healthy masculinity.